Performance vs. Health: The Limits of Exercising Away a Bad Diet

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In this installment from my ‘Ask Me Anything’ series, which you can find on my social media channels, I delve into the topic of performance and diet.

“Why do fitness experts say ‘you can’t outwork your fork’ when it’s clearly possible for some people? Michael Phelps was known to eat 10,000 calories per day.”

This is common in fitness circles and stems from the idea that it’s easier to reduce calorie intake than to increase physical activity. Most people could probably eat what Michael Phelps was eating, but virtually no one could train the way he was training.

So that’s why it’s a commonly repeated phrase.

Now, there is another interpretation of this concept that jives better with me: exercise won’t prevent the health consequences of eating a shitty diet. It can certainly offset some of those effects, especially if you maintain an athletic body composition, but it won’t override them entirely.

There’s a stark difference between eating for performance and eating for health. While there can be some overlap, you largely end up picking between them, especially when dealing with competitive athletes. Food often needs to be calorie-dense ultra-processed junk to supply the energy needed to fuel high performance levels without the bulk that demands more digestion.

There are countless examples of athletes, like pro football players, who develop diabetes and other health complications after they retire from professional sports because their performance-based diet choices catch up to them. Exercise was just delaying the inevitable.

Of course, repairing the body also demands a careful balance of nutrients. It’s not just about the quantity of food but also the quality. Ensuring a diet rich in vitamins, minerals, and other essential nutrients is crucial for recovery and overall well-being. Falling short here can not only hurt your health, but also impair your performance, so it’s important to be mindful regardless of your goals.

Ultimately, you really can’t out-train a bad diet. No matter how rigorous your exercise regimen is, if your diet is poor, your health and performance will suffer. Nutrition forms the foundation of both athletic performance and overall health, and it’s essential to align your eating habits with your health goals rather than just your immediate performance needs.

Also, consider this: if you’re not being paid like an athlete, what incentive do you have to sacrifice your health for performance?

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